Archive for the ‘Islam’ Category

During the course of the Arab Spring, we have noted various types of Islamist group emerging into the public sphere.  From the well-organised Muslim Brotherhood and their political party, the FJP, to the newly formed Yemeni Salafist party, the Rashad Union. Muslims of various creeds and affiliations have taken an active part in the political revolutions sweeping the MENA region.

Yet, not all of the Islamists vying for attention belong to parties or established movements.  For some, this is because of a doctrinal aversion to hizbiyya or partisanship; for others, it is simply because they are unaffiliated to any specific theological movement or Islamist grouping.  Khalil al-Anani terms them ‘informal’ Islamists:

“They are not officially affiliated with any Islamist movement. Nor are they keen to establish their own organizations. Ironically, they shunned joining any of the new Islamists parties. Moreover, whereas “formal” Islamists, for example, the MB, ad-Dawa al-Salafiyya, and ex-Jihadists, rushed to formal politics, “informal” Islamists prefer to play outside the official framework.”

Perhaps the archetypal unaffiliated or ‘informal’ Islamist is the Egyptian Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi.  Despite being associated with the Ikhwan, and playing a pivotal role in the initial formation of the Global Muslim Brotherhood Organisation, al-Qaradawi has established a global independent platform for his doctrine of wasatiyya or ‘moderation’ in one’s interpretation of Islam.  Through his appearances on the popular Al Jazeera show Al Sharia wal Hayat, his leadership of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, to the publication of numerous books translated into a multitude of languages, he has been able propagate his ideology to a global audience independently of the Egyptian Brotherhood.

It is the flexibility of operating outside of any formal religious or political organisation that has been a boon for this type of Islamist personality in the wake of the Arab uprisings.  Whilst politico-religious movements such as the Ikhwan and the Salafis have entered parliament, Islamists such as the Egyptian presidential candidate Hazem Abu Ismail, who bridges the gap between the two, have been left untarnished by any controversial pronouncements made by members of either movement, and have built allegiances that cross traditional class and economic boundaries.

It is worth noting that these types of Islamist only represent a short term threat to the political aspirations of the Brotherhood and the Salafi movement; in the long term, these independent Islamists serve to frame the terms of the political debate along Islamic lines.  They broadly share the same goals as these movements in that they wish to see greater Islamic unity, and to see a prominent role for the sharia in the legal systems of their respective countries.


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Khalil al-Anani argues that, with the entrance of Islamists into the political arena during and after the Arab Spring, “we need to rethink the Islamist question in a manner that transcends the styles of praise or ridicule that typified our approach and shaped our awareness for several decades.”  In making this point he is quite right: Islamists in politics require a more considered analysis than was necessary for purely religious movements, largely excluded from the public square.  For this, we have a few historical examples of how Islamist parties have functioned in elections and (in parliament though not in government) such as the Jamaat-e Islaami in Pakistan.  Fortunately, we now also have contemporary examples from which to draw conclusions in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Kuwait.

Al-Anani makes some important observations about the changes in Islamist discourse wrought by their electioneering and, in the case of the aforementioned countries, especially Egypt, their rise to power:

1) A shift from talking exclusively about religious solutions to practical problems, to engaging with voters through the use of more pragmatic rhetoric attuned to the present conditions.  He cites the example of the MB’s political party, the Freedom and Justice party (FJP – حزب الحرية والعدالة‎ , Ḥizb Al-Ḥurriya wa Al-’Adala), adapting the slogan ‘We bring the good to Egypt’ (نحمل الخير لمصر) as an alternate to the Brotherhood’s previous one of ‘Islam is the solution’ (الإسلام هو الحال).  Some would argue that the FJP are merely there to ‘market’ Ikhwani ideology, hence the adaption or moderation of the language used.

2) A shift from talking in mosques (and at rallies), to debating in parliament.  This involves not just a change in the nature of the issues discussed, but also a shift from sermons and speeches (which are traditionally monologues) to dialogue and debate.  Both spaces also have different customs for behaviour within each of them: not only is speech subject to less restriction in parliament, but it is also has to be accountable to the general public who may watch the debates live on TV or comment on Facebook.  Whilst there are certainly taboos in mosques, there is little or no public scrutiny, except perhaps in the case of the ‘live’ Friday sermon.

3) A shift from religious to secular authority, where religious figures respected for their Islamic knowledge are subjected to careful scrutiny on entering the public sphere.  It remains to be seen how this will affect the public’s perception of and reaction to policy inspired by the Qur’an and Sunna.

4) A shift from the solidarity expressed in private to a rivalry based on each party’s success at implementing its respective policies.  In the case of Egypt, it will be interesting to note the future role that Islam will play in the revised constitution and how this will impact on the relationship between the two largest parties in parliament: the FJP and the Salafist al-Nour party.

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Although IslamOnline still exists (we’re still awaiting the English section mind you), a new website, brought to us by the founders of IslamOnline, is with us: OnIslam promises to be everything that the old IslamOnline was.  And best of all, they’ve brought back the only portal dedicated to Islamist movements on the net, al-Islamyoon.

You can read more on the developments that led to the change of personnel, and the setting up of OnIslam, here.


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Soner Cagaptay has an article up today at the Washington Institute defining Islamism in opposition to Islam, at least from his own perspective.  He gets it mostly right:

While Islam is the faith of 1.4 billion people, Islamism is not a form of the Muslim faith or an expression of Muslim piety. Rather, it is a political ideology that strives to derive legitimacy from Islam. Islam and Islamism are not synonymous…So if Islam is a faith, then what is Islamism? It can be best described as an “anti-” ideology, in the sense that it defines itself only in opposition to things.

I like that bit about defining itself in terms of what it is not.  Islamists do this all the time; it’s their driving rationale: Islam4UK’s Anjem Choudary rails against alcohol, liberal democracy and homosexuality, all things he asserts that his movement stands in direct opposition to – but he fails to offer any concrete ‘solutions’ to what he views as ‘problems’.

Islamists are idealists.  They want to see the re-establishment of a pan-Islamic global caliphate enforcing the legal norms of shar’iah.  But they don’t acknowledge the debt that mediaeval political theorists such as al-Mawardi owe to the classical Greek philosophers, or the nod to political realism that these thinkers made in propounding their theory of Islamic constitutionalism.  Ideals are fine as ideals, but they inevitably don’t pan out the way their supporters thought they would. 

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In the early 1980s, Nasir Tamara, a young Indonesian scholar, needed money to fund a study of Islam and politics. He went to the Jakarta office of the U.S.-based Ford Foundation to ask for help. He left empty-handed. The United States, he was told, was “not interested in getting into Islam.”

The rebuff came from President Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, a U.S. anthropologist who lived in Indonesia for more than a decade. Dunham, who died in 1995, focused on issues of economic development, not matters of faith and politics, sensitive subjects in a country then ruled by a secular-minded autocrat.

“It was not fashionable to ‘do Islam’ back then,” Tamara recalled.

Today, Indonesia is a democracy and the role of Islam is one of the most important issues facing U.S. policy in a country with many more Muslims than Egypt, Syria, Jordan and all the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf combined. What kind of Islam prevails here is critical to U.S. interests across the wider Muslim world.

“This is a fight for ideas, a fight for what kind of future Indonesia wants,” said Walter North, Jakarta mission chief for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), who knew Dunham while she was here in the 1980s.

It is also a fight that raises a tricky question: Should Americans stand apart from Islam’s internal struggles around the world or jump in and try to bolster Muslims who are in sync with American views?

A close look at U.S. interactions with Muslim groups in Indonesia — Obama’s boyhood home for four years — shows how, since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, rival strategies have played out, often with consequences very different from what Washington intended.

In the debate over how best to influence the country’s religious direction, some champion intervention, most notably a private organization from North Carolina that has waded deep into Indonesia’s theological struggles. But, in the main, U.S. thinking has moved back toward what it was in Dunham’s day: stay out of Islam.

A change in public mood

In many ways, Indonesia — a nation of 240 million people scattered across 17,000 islands — is moving in America’s direction. It has flirted with Saudi-style dogmatism on its fringes. But while increasingly pious, it shows few signs of dumping what, since Islam arrived here in the 14th century, has generally been an eclectic and flexible brand of the faith.

Terrorism, which many Indonesians previously considered an American-made myth, now stirs general revulsion. When a key suspect in July suicide bombings in Jakarta was killed recently in a shootout with a U.S.-trained police unit, his native village, appalled by his violent activities, refused to take the body for burial.

A band of Islamic moral vigilantes this month forced a Japanese porn star to call off a trip to Jakarta. But the group no longer storms bars, nightclubs and hotels as it did regularly a few years ago, at the height of a U.S. drive to promote “moderate” Islam. Aceh, a particularly devout Indonesian region and a big recipient of U.S. aid after a 2004 tsunami, recently introduced a bylaw that mandates the stoning to death of adulterers, but few expect the penalty to be carried out. Aceh’s governor, who has an American adviser paid for by USAID, opposes stoning.

Public fury at the United States over the Iraq war has faded, a trend accelerated by the departure of President George W. Bush and the election of Obama. In 2003, the first year of the war, 15 percent of Indonesians surveyed by the Pew Research Center had a favorable view of the United States — compared with 75 percent before Bush took office. America’s favorability rating is now 63 percent.

There are many reasons for the change of mood: an economy that is growing fast despite the global slump; increasing political stability rooted in elections that are generally free and fair; moves by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a U.S.-trained former general who won reelection by a landslide in July, to co-opt Islamic political parties.

Another reason, said Masdar Mas’udi, a senior cleric at Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s — and the world’s — largest Islamic organization, is that the United States has backed away from overt intrusions into religious matters. A foe of hard-line Muslims who has worked closely with Americans, Mas’udi said he now believes that U.S. intervention in theological quarrels often provides radicals with “a sparring partner” that strengthens them. These days, instead of tinkering with religious doctrine, a pet project focuses on providing organic rice seeds to poor Muslim farmers.

In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Washington deployed money and rhetoric in a big push to bolster “moderate” Muslims against what Bush called the “real and profound ideology” of “Islamo-fascism.” Obama, promising a “new beginning between America and Muslims around the world,” has avoided dividing Muslims into competing theological camps. He has denounced “violent extremists” but, in a June speech in Cairo, stated that “Islam is not part of the problem.”

North, the USAID mission chief, said the best way to help “champions of an enlightened perspective win the day” is to avoid theology and help Indonesia “address some of the problems here, such as poverty and corruption.” Trying to groom Muslim leaders America likes, he said, won’t help.

Rethinking post-9/11 tack

This is a sharp retreat from the approach taken right after the Sept. 11 attacks, when a raft of U.S.-funded programs sought to amplify the voice of “moderates.” Hundreds of Indonesian clerics went through U.S.-sponsored courses that taught a reform-minded reading of the Koran. A handbook for preachers, published with U.S. money, offered tips on what to preach. One American-funded Muslim group even tried to script Friday prayer sermons.

Such initiatives mimicked a strategy adopted during the Cold War, when, to counter communist ideology, the United States funded a host of cultural, educational and other groups in tune with America’s goals. Even some of the key actors were the same. The Asia Foundation, founded with covert U.S. funding in the 1950s to combat communism, took the lead in battling noxious strands of Islam in Indonesia as part of a USAID-financed program called Islam and Civil Society. The program began before the Sept. 11 attacks but ramped up its activities after.

“We wanted to challenge hard-line ideas head-on,” recalled Ulil Abshar Abdalla, an Indonesian expert in Islamic theology who, with Asia Foundation funding, set up the Liberal Islam Network in 2001. The network launched a weekly radio program that questioned literal interpretations of sacred texts with respect to women, homosexuals and basic doctrine. It bought airtime on national television for a video that presented Islam as a faith of “many colors” and distributed leaflets promoting liberal theology in mosques.

Feted by Americans as a model moderate, Abdalla was flown to Washington in 2002 to meet officials at the State Department and the Pentagon, including Paul D. Wolfowitz, the then-deputy secretary of defense and a former U.S. ambassador to Jakarta. But efforts to transplant Cold War tactics into the Islamic world started to go very wrong. More-conservative Muslims never liked what they viewed as American meddling in theology. Their unease over U.S. motives escalated sharply with the start of the Iraq war and spread to a wider constituency. Iraq “destroyed everything,” said Abdalla, who started getting death threats.

Indonesia’s council of clerics, enraged by what it saw as a U.S. campaign to reshape Islam, issued a fatwa denouncing “secularism, pluralism and liberalism.”

The Asia Foundation pulled its funding for Abdalla’s network and began to rethink its strategy. It still works with Muslim groups but avoids sensitive theological issues, focusing instead on training to monitor budgets, battle corruption and lobby on behalf of the poor. “The foundation came to believe that it was more effective for intra-Islamic debates to take place without the involvement of international organizations,” said Robin Bush, head of the foundation’s Jakarta office.

Abdalla, meanwhile, left Indonesia and moved to Boston to study.

One U.S. group jumps in

While the Asia Foundation and others dived for cover, one American outfit jumped into the theological fray with gusto. In December 2003, C. Holland Taylor, a former telecommunications executive from Winston-Salem, N.C., set up a combative outfit called LibForAll Foundation to “promote the culture of liberty and tolerance.”

Taylor, who speaks Indonesian, won some big-name supporters, including Indonesia’s former president, Abdurrahman Wahid, a prominent but ailing cleric, and a popular Indonesian pop star, who released a hit song that vowed, “No to the warriors of jihad! Yes to the warriors of love.” Taylor took Wahid to Washington, where they met Wolfowitz, Vice President Richard B. Cheney and others. He recruited a reform-minded Koran scholar from Egypt to help promote a “renaissance of Islamic pluralism, tolerance and critical thinking.”

Funding came from wealthy Americans, including heirs of the Hanes underwear fortune, and several European organizations. Taylor, in a recent interview in Jakarta, declined to identify his biggest American donor. He said he has repeatedly asked the U.S. government for money but has received only $50,000, a grant from a State Department counterterrorism unit.

“You can’t win a war with that,” said Taylor, who is working on a 26-part TV documentary that aims to debunk hard-line Islamic doctrine. “People in Washington would prefer to think that if we do nothing we will be okay: just cut off the heads of terrorists and everything will be fine.”

As the atmosphere has grown less hostile, Abdalla, the much-reviled American favorite, returned this year to Jakarta. He hasn’t changed his liberal take on Islam but now avoids topics that fire up his foes. “I’ve changed. The environment has changed,” he said. “We now realize the radical groups are not as dominant as we thought in the beginning.”

Tired of being branded a fringe American stooge, he plans to run in an election next year for leadership of Nahdlatul Ulama, a pillar of Indonesia’s traditional religious establishment. He doesn’t stand much of a chance but wants to “engage with the mainstream instead of the periphery.” His Liberal Islam Network doesn’t get U.S. money anymore, skirts touchy topics on its radio show and no longer hands out leaflets in mosques.

“Religion is too sensitive. We shouldn’t get involved,” said Kay Ikranagara, a close American friend of Obama’s late mother who works in Jakarta for a small USAID-funded scholarship program. Ikranagara worries about Islam’s growing influence on daily life in the country, but she’s wary of outsiders who want to press Indonesians on matters of faith.

“We just get in a lot of trouble trying to do that,” she said.

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The Pew Forum have recently published their report into the demography of the world’s Muslim population.  The report itself, aside from the obvious interest it has generated amongst demographers and others with an interest in population statistics, provides some welcome relief for policy makers as they strive to take account of their citizens’ religious affiliations.

Most of the report’s conclusions barely raise an eyebrow: for instance, it has been pretty well understood for some time that Muslims comprise one quarter of the world’s population.  Concomitant with this common perception has been the understanding that Christianity remains the world religion with the greatest number of adherents (with Christians comprising around one third of the world’s 6.8 billion population).  Once Pew have conducted their own research into the world’s Christian population, as they plan to do, some far more interesting conclusions can be drawn.

It is perhaps the distribution of Muslim populations that will cause consternation in certain quarters, though the figures are hardly a surprise to specialists in the field:

While Muslims are found on all five inhabited continents, more than 60% of the global Muslim population is in Asia and about 20% is in the Middle East and North Africa. However, the Middle East-North Africa region has the highest percentage of Muslim-majority countries. Indeed, more than half of the 20 countries and territories in that region have populations that are approximately 95% Muslim or greater.

So, whilst Asia remains the continent with the largest Muslim population, containing the countries with the four largest Muslim populations (Indonesia, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh), the experience of many Asian Muslims is of Islam as a minority religion:

More than 300 million Muslims, or one-fifth of the world’s Muslim population, live in countries where Islam is not the majority religion. These minority Muslim populations are often quite large. India, for example, has the third-largest population of Muslims worldwide. China has more Muslims than Syria, while Russia is home to more Muslims than Jordan and Libya combined.

Although, according to the report’s authors, the respective percentages of Sunni and Shi’a Muslims are not as accurate as the overall figures on generic Muslim populations, the results would tend to contradict the widely-held perception that approximately one fifth of the world’s Muslims subscribe to Shi’ism (compared to one tenth in the report):

Of the total Muslim population, 10-13% are Shia Muslims and 87-90% are Sunni Muslims. Most Shias (between 68% and 80%) live in just four countries: Iran, Pakistan, India and Iraq.

From the perspective of global political Islamism and Islamist movements, the report provides the raw date with which we can establish the factors which influence and feed into the worldview of political Islamist ideology.  For instance, for all of the major Islamist movements, the issue of Israel and the Palestinians looms large, indeed out of all proportion to the number of Muslims directly affected.  Why is this?  Why does this issue exercise the minds of say, Indonesian Muslims, whose experience of Islam is far-removed from that of Lebanese Muslims?  The answer may lie in the fact that, whilst the majority of Muslims live in Asia, the cultural importance of the Middle East as the cradle of Islam and the significance of the Arabic language for Muslims worldwide drives the issue of Israel and the Palestinians to the forefront of the Islamists’ agenda.  The perceived hegemony of Israel, Zionism and, more worryingly for followers of the history of anti-Semitism, Jews themselves, provides a rationale for Muslims everywhere to protest an entrenched ‘injustice’ against Muslims.

In terms of those groups whose raison d’être is the establishment of a global Islamic caliphate such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islaami, it presents a challenge to their conception of a caliphate.  Given that the majority of Muslims’ experience of Islam is anchored outside the Middle East, how can these groups and their respective ideologues garner support for a caliphate and all the attendant cultural biases (language, institutions etc.) unless they adapt their message significantly?  Furthermore, the distribution of the world’s Muslim population raises questions about the existence of a global Muslim polity, a Muslim demos or a unified Ummah, all prerequisites for a caliphate.

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